You see the stories here and there, usually in local West Coast papers and on specialized websites. One has a gross picture of a dissolving starfish, another a heart-tugger of a starving sea lion pup. Then there are the stories that have no pictures because they are about something that isn’t there, such as sardines and krill. Or something that is happening but cannot be watched, like the slow impassive death of oyster beds. It takes a while for it to begin to dawn on you: Holy Crap! Everything on our Pacific Ocean coast seems to be dying!
In yet another tribute to the limitations of expertise and the need for generalists, you seldom find a review of everything that is assaulting the creatures of the western sea. So let us try to step into the vacuum, which we abhor.
- Starfish. Millions of sea stars have died along the West Coast from Alaska to Mexico in the past two years, afflicted by a pathogen that causes them to get multiple lesions, disintegrate and turn to mush. Fearing extinction, 12 members of Congress are pushing legislation to declare an emergency and fund research. So that should take care of that.
- Sea Lions. For three years, sea lion pups by the hundreds — more than 1450 so far this year just in California, the worst year on record — have been washing up on shore dead or nearly so, from hunger, disease and parasites.
- Sardines. The population of Pacific sardines has collapsed. Estimated at 1.5 million metric tons in 2007, the size of the stock has declined by 90%, to just 150,000 metric tons. In a few weeks the Pacific Fishery Management Council is expected to ban fishing of sardines until they can recover, although no one thinks overfishing has had anything to do with the decline.
- Shellfish. Beginning in 2009, shellfish larvae have been dying in stunning numbers of the coast of Washington, Oregon and British Columbia. Since then other hot spots on both coasts have also been experiencing high shellfish mortality. The industry on the West Coast reports that its revenues are down 70 to 80 per cent.
- Birds. In the last year, an estimated 50-100 thousand Cassin’s auklets, small divers that feed on krill, have died and washed ashore on West Coast beaches. They showed no evidence of disease or trauma, they simply starved to death. This is the latest in a wave of similar die-off affecting pigeons, pelicans and several other species.
- Whales. Orca whale pods off British Columbia and Alaska are reported suffering extremely high infant mortality rates — approaching 100% — along with adult deaths and unusual behavior.
Any one of these stories is scary (oddly, very few of them mention any of the others). Put all the stories together and they are terrifying. And terrified minds want to know: what’s doing it? What one thing is the cause of all this, and which magic pill can we take to make it go away?
Unfortunately it never works that way. Contributing causes range from ocean acidification (shellfish) to warmer water (sardines) to altered currents, to pathogens enabled by all the above, to food-source changes caused by all the above. But if you follow each chain of evidence all the way back — what’s warming the water, making it more acid, changing the currents, screwing with the food sources — and you will come hard up against the massive pollution gushing from the smokestacks and sewage pipes of the industrial age.
Once again we meet the enemy. Once again, it’s us.